After hiking thousands of miles and spending hundreds of nights in the wilderness, the modern human is forced to confront a few things. The priorities and perspectives that work for most “civilized” folks aren’t very useful in the wilderness. What’s considered important in “regular life” doesn’t always hold up when your food bag is nearly empty and you’re still two days away from the nearest form of civilization. Naturally we begin to see the world differently, we begin to pick up on the wisdom that can only be found in nature. These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned from spending time in nature.
For a majority of human history we have been living in small tribes as hunter gatherers. The environment was less predictable than it is today. No one knew when the next drought would come or the next predator would hunt us down. For most of our existence, the human species has been trying to reduce variability. With the rise of modern civilization we have largely succeeded. Variability in the average person’s life has decreased considerably. Most of our days are predictable and safe. Today the risk is too much stability, not too much variability. This is dangerous too, but for opposite reasons. Too much stability leads to stagnation. When we are no longer challenged by variability we stay the same. We stop growing and life becomes stagnant, then we tend to atrophy.
Flexibility is key on adventures. It’s good to start out with plans, but when situations change, so should our plans. If we are too rigid in our planning then we will walk right past great opportunities which seldom announce their presence in advance; they simply appear without warning. We have to recognize them before it’s too late to get the most out of our adventures.
Remembering the life of a cave man.
When we get ourselves into trouble it’s very easy to adopt a victim mentality and place the blame on things outside of our control. When the blame lies on something external, then we can shrug off the responsibility of fixing the problem because it wasn’t our fault in the first place. In the wilderness, we are on our own. Modern miracles like the GPS and satellite communicators with an S.O.S button remove a lot of the fatal risk involved, but there's a certain utility to being alone and unsupported. We realize that almost all problems are self-created. On the surface that sounds harsh and defeating, but it can be empowering because that means that we have the ability to fix our problems, or avoid them in the first place. We are no longer helpless against the whims of the uncontrollable external world.
Traveling alone in the wilderness is certainly more dangerous, but riskier paths often have greater rewards. It can provide us with insight about ourselves and the laws of nature that are much harder to see when other people are influencing the experience. To be alone is to experience the adventure unfiltered.
We are subjective beings. We have feelings, desires, and perceptions about the way things “should be.” We consciously change the world, trying to match those perceptions. We are constantly judging, and influencing each other in these pursuits as well. The wilderness is objective. It has no feelings or desires. It has no perception about the way things “should be.” It simply exists according to the unchanging laws of nature. Being alone in the wilderness means that all other subjective forces have been removed from the equation. That makes it a perfect environment for examining our own subjectivity, because that’s the only subjectivity left in the equation. The objective wilderness is like a mirror. Whatever attitude we project out into the world, will be reflected back at us. Bad attitudes result in more suffering, good attitudes result in more opportunities. When we make mistakes we have no one else to blame, so we learn to take responsibility for our actions. When we succeed at something, we can take full ownership of it. Slowly, we learn which attitudes and beliefs are harmful and which ones make us successful.
If adventure is about going into the unknown, then there will be a lot of unforeseen obstacles. Many predicaments will need to be figured out on the fly. Normally obstacles are met with frustration but the more we overcome them the more we begin to see them as games instead of problems. Problems are not fun, but games are, and that little shift in perspective makes it more satisfying to solve the riddles in the landscape before us. On top of that, we realize we are getting better at this game and that strengthens our trust in the future.
We are always changing
While hunger will probably never be eradicated completely, there is a smaller percentage of the population going hungry now than ever before. It’s a modern miracle that roughly 89% of the human population doesn’t have to worry about starvation anymore. Food is just one of the examples of abundance that we enjoy today. With all this abundance, the consequences of over-indulgence are much more delayed. If we eat too much today, we won’t go hungry tomorrow. But if we repeat that bad habit, our health will slowly deteriorate over time. A sharp night of hunger is a much more powerful lesson than years of slowly gaining weight.
When all of our basic needs are met, then discipline becomes more of a voluntary trait than a necessity. When survival is at stake, there is no choice but to be disciplined. In the wilderness, discipline becomes a practice. It’s a balance between sacrifice in the present versus sacrifice in the future. How do I sacrifice just the right amount of comfort in the present to make sure I can keep going the next day? After enough time in the wilderness, this way of thinking becomes our default mode of being. When we take that approach into regular life it creates a better future over time.
Nankoweap Granaries in the Grand Canyon. A little more difficult to access than your refrigerator.
The rhythm of the trail involves a flow state, an effortless passing of time. It happens to a hiker after he or she has adjusted to the trail both mentally and physically. It usually takes a month for the body to adapt, but the mind can adapt at just about any time, or not at all. It depends on the person’s attitude. The hiking becomes easier and the mind wanders freely between thoughts. It focuses on problems when they appear but it doesn’t create any when there are none. Everything tends to go smoother in the rhythm of the trail.
A hiker usually bounces in an out of the rhythm. It may only last for a day or a couple hours at a time. Often times we don’t even realize we are in the rhythm until we fall out of it. Feeling the rhythm is a hard thing to explain because it is the absence of ego. It’s a form of meditation and we can only reflect on it after we have left it. It’s something that must be experienced first hand to be understood. It can be achieved anywhere, but exhaustion, solitude, and lack of distraction make a good recipe for this state of mind.
Flow with the rhythm.
Adventures will present good and bad situations all the time, but we don’t have to be controlled by these situations. When we can’t do what we want to do, we are presented with a choice: to give up or look for an alternative. The alternative will involve some sort of compromise but usually it’s better than giving up. When we give up, the path has been defined. It’s a step backward on the path of growth. If we find an alternative, the future is still open. An alternate route branches off and new opportunities may appear.
In the wilderness, our mood fluctuates more often and more extremely. That’s because things change more often and more extremely. At home, things are much more stable, and change happens over longer periods of time. The average day in regular life is just that, average. Nothing too exciting happens but also nothing too terrible happens. It’s hard to define an average day on a trail like the Hayduke, because every day is different and unpredictable. New terrain, different weather, and a new set of challenges.
The higher level of unpredictability puts a person on edge. There is more chaos to deal with and we have to be prepared for a multitude of possibilities at all times. This restricts our perception of time to a much narrower bandwidth. A hiker in search of water is not concerned with what might happen next year, or even next week. He is only concerned with how his actions are going to affect the next few hours. This dilation of time forces us to watch ourselves carefully, to think through every action because there’s no time to waste.
You never know how the day will unfold.
Habits are useful because they save us from expending unnecessary mental energy for repetitive situations. The problem is that when repetitive situations change, our old habits are no longer useful.
The environment around us is constantly changing. Living in modern society has shielded us from many of the changes taking place in the natural world. Instead, we feel the effects of societal change. This takes a different skill set to manage but at the core it’s all the same. Change is constant. Just because something worked yesterday doesn’t mean it will always work. We have to be vigilant for change in our environment and be willing to adapt when it happens, or else our strategies will become outdated and life will become hard to navigate.
Change is Constant.
In the wilderness we get to determine our own standards. Out there, no one can judge us for our decisions, because there is no subjective force to pass judgement. The only feedback we get is from ourselves because we are the only things capable of passing judgement.
This is incredibly liberating, but it also reveals exactly how much we don’t like about ourselves. Everyone has insecurities and they will gnaw away at us in such an environment. Some are worth listening to, but most are just dead weight that we’ve been carrying around for years. Emotional trauma, regrets, embarrassing events; sooner or later we realize how useless they are and we let them go. Backpacks are heavy enough. Hiking becomes almost impossible after enough mental baggage has been allowed to build up.
Accepting yourself can be the hardest thing.
Strength is as much mental as it is physical. Placing ourselves in uncomfortable situations on the edge of our abilities is like exercise for the mind. The more we practice dealing with discomfort, the stronger we become. Things that used to scare or frustrate us become routine and they don’t have the same negative effects that they used to. Life becomes easier and more enjoyable when we find the courage to explore our internal world. We are more informed about our actions and we can make better decisions. Better decisions lead to prosperity and fulfillment. It makes us happier and we tend to see opportunities where we used to see only problems. It’s a feedback loop that improves our well-being over time. Eventually we perceive more positive forces in the world and fewer negative forces. This is not because we have changed the external world, we have simply chosen to tune into the beneficial parts of it. At the same time we are aware enough to fend off the detrimental elements.
It’s often not in times of danger that we get hurt. Many of our injuries, whether they be mental or physical, happen when we believe we are safe. In times of danger our senses are heightened and we are careful. In times of comfort we believe nothing can hurt us because everything appears safe. We let our guard down and that’s when accidents find their way in.
Be solid as rock.
Maps and guidebooks are the hiker’s source of order that they cling to in the chaotic wilderness. It’s the small piece of known information that they can bring into the unknown. They rely on those sources of information heavily because their well-being depends on it. The problem is that sometimes that information is wrong. Usually it’s wrong in only minor ways but anything unexpected in that precious source of order is disturbing to the hiker’s fragile sense of place in the world. It’s enough to throw the balance of chaos and order a little bit too far to the chaos side. That is met with an emotional response of fear or anger which can influence one’s ability to make good objective decisions.
Out in the wilderness, we find a completely different relationship with civilization. After spending enough time out there we realize that towns, and roads, and all that infrastructure is not normal. Wilderness is normal. That is what exists on the earth by default. Humans have painstakingly carved out pieces of the wilderness to make room for our civilization. On the one hand it’s a shame to destroy the wilderness for our own benefit, but on the other it’s truly impressive to see what human ingenuity has created in only a couple of centuries. We have been so successful at insulating ourselves from the harsh realities of wilderness that most of us consider civilization to be the normal state of the world.
There is a fundamental difference between wilderness and civilization. Civilization was made for us, but we were made for the wilderness. We have an expectation that civilization is supposed to adapt to us, but it’s the opposite in the wilderness. We are supposed to adapt to it. One expectation makes us God, while the other makes us subordinate to a higher power. One makes us pampered and spoiled while the other makes us resilient and humble.
Not very useful out here.
We humans are much like a forest. In order for us to evolve and grow, sometimes we have to burn off patches of dead wood. These are the old and outdated parts of ourselves that no longer serve us; they are just dead weight. Usually we have lived with these parts for a long time and it can be painful to let them burn. They will catch fire sooner or later though, and it’s better to do many small controlled burns than to wait for the inferno.
Be ever changing like the forests.
We spend most of our time preparing for the future or ruminating over the past. It’s one of the things that makes us human. Compared to animals, we have a very good understanding of time and how our actions propagate through it. On the one hand it gives us extraordinary ability to learn from our mistakes and build a better future, but on the other hand it gives us a lot of existential angst. We are acutely aware that our time on earth is limited and that’s a scary thing to come to terms with. Naturally we look for forms of escape that allow us to live in the moment and escape the tyranny of the clock.
There is nothing wrong with living in the moment, but it is a form of escape from time itself and it can’t be a permanent state of life. Time can’t be ignored, it’s an unstoppable force that must be dealt with sooner or later. If we are constantly escaping from it, then we are refusing to adapt to the changes that it brings. As long as we remember to return to time and deal with the past and the future we will be blessed with periods of blissful escape from it from time to time.
In the wilderness our sphere of understanding expands because all five of our senses are put to use. They have evolved specifically to interact with the cues in nature, so nature is the best place to exercise them. Like any muscle, these senses atrophy if they are not used.
Civilized life consists of sensory overload. Bright, unnatural colors compete for our sight, food is oversaturated with taste, everything is made to be soft and comfortable, fragrances compete with each other, and silence is extremely rare. In the wilderness, subtlety is the rule. Our senses have to work harder. It takes a while, but after a few weeks our senses begin to adapt. They become more sensitive and we become more aware of our surroundings.
This manifests in interesting and unexpected ways, because our senses are always operating in the background. Most of the time they inform us at a subconscious level, so we may come to new realizations without understanding where they came from.
Things are more subtle out here.
We like to think that we make decisions based on rationality and logic, but in reality many of our decisions are highly influenced by feelings. That’s why we grab that second doughnut when we know we shouldn’t or buy some new gadget when we should be saving. It feels good to do those things in the short term and feelings offer a much quicker reward than logic does. In modern society, the consequences are low for operating on subjective feelings because we enjoy a very large margin of error. Poor decisions may affect our happiness but only in very rare cases will they threaten our lives. In the wilderness, the margin of error is much smaller. Poor decisions have much greater consequences, so we are forced to rise above our feelings and make decisions based on objective reality. There is no arguing with the wilderness. 100-degree heat and few water sources necessitate very specific action, regardless of what we feel like doing.
The wrong decisions will get you trapped.
The human mind is a pattern recognition machine. Patterns are very important because they help us predict the future and understand the world around us. This happens on very basic levels, from knowing that it’s going to rain when dark clouds form overhead, to much more complex levels like recognizing how patterns of behavior tend to lead to certain outcomes. Our understanding of the world and our ability to navigate through life depends on how well we understand the patterns around us and within us.
When something breaks one of these fundamental patterns, it challenges our perception of reality. We are left in a state of confusion, searching for answers. When reality is in question it allows room for alternate explanations to seep in. This is where metaphysical explanations live and it may explain why ancient cultures were much more religious than we are today. Their lack of scientific understanding left them with a lot more unexplainable events. Gods and magic were the best ways they had to explain those things.
Today, we have explained away a lot of the things that were unexplainable in the past. We like to believe that we have all the answers now and everything can be reduced to materialist explanations. Our confidence in our knowledge is so high that it can make us arrogant. We aren’t willing to admit that there are still things outside of our understanding. Spending enough time in the wilderness reminds us that there are still a lot of mysteries in the world.
We are living in unprecedented times because technology has become more powerful than ever before. Things like the smartphone and the internet are seeping into every culture in the world. Now everyone has a voice that can be heard by anyone else in the world. There is a lot of useless noise on the internet, but the overall trend is that the world is becoming more connected and more informed. It’s happening faster than we can really comprehend because we are in the middle of it. Ideas are spreading faster than they ever have before and that’s causing a lot of turmoil in a system that isn’t used to such rapid change. There’s no telling whether this will be good or bad for us in the long run. All that is certain right now is that we are living in chaotic times with huge potential at our fingertips.
Technology is only a tool, it’s not inherently good or bad. That’s how tools have always been; the difference today is that our tools have become extremely powerful. If we are not careful we’ll use these tools to ruin the world and ourselves. If we learn discipline and respect for this newfound power, then we can use it for immense good. We have more responsibility than our ancestors, because we hold more power to change the world than they did.
There's still a lot of mystery left in this world.
We are the creators of our own adventure, so we get to make the rules. That doesn’t mean we get to do whatever we want, though. These rules need to challenge us and help us grow. Adventures are self-correcting and they will provide negative feedback if we don’t adhere to the right rules. A little bit of common sense and a lot of trial and error are the only way to find these rules, because each one of us requires a slightly different set.
Adventure is constantly testing us in new and unpredictable ways. It reveals the unique mixture of strengths and weaknesses that make up who we are as individuals. It shows us what we value most and the traps we are susceptible to. Out of this self-awareness, a set of rules will emerge that informs us how to be the best versions of ourselves.
Finding our rules is only the beginning, though. The hard part is actually following them. Most of us could get by just fine without following our personal rules, but that’s all we would be doing, just getting by. We wouldn’t be failing, but we wouldn’t be thriving either. To fully realize our potential, we have to become our own boss in every aspect of life. That’s a great responsibility that comes with the territory of freedom, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. The possibility of disaster is real, but so is the possibility for triumph. With true freedom there is limitless potential for good and bad outcomes, and only through the adoption of personal responsibility can we move towards growth in that vast sea of potential.
Adventure isn’t the easiest path. It’s not supposed to be. It requires everything we have so that we can become all that we might be.
I made a documentary about my hike on the 800-mile-long Hayduke trail, called “Figure it Out on the Hayduke Trail.” It’s available on Amazon prime, Tubi, and Plex!